Two Nuclear Subs Collide
March 14, 2009
Not as vast as space but big enough to intimidate human imagination, Earth's ocean depths would be an unlikely place for collisions. And yet in the depths of the Atlantic, two nuclear submarines, bristling with weapons of mass destruction, hit each other in yet another one in a million collision. Both vessels, HMS Vanguard and a French submarine of the Triomphant class, were damaged while on a routine patrol at relatively low speeds in the wordís second largest ocean, although no one was injured.
Despite what we see in movies, submarines do not travel around the world pinging their sonar to see what is out there, since this gives away their own position. As part of its nuclear deterrent, Britain maintains at least one submarine in the Atlantic twenty four hours a day, 365 days a year. HMS Vanguard carries 16 Trident missiles with a maximum of 48 nuclear warheads. Its French counterpart is no doubt similarly equipped. The odds of this happening may seem high, but it is clearly possible and if a bigger collision had occurred, an explosion involving multiple warheads, as well as two nuclear reactors, would have been catastrophic.
This wasnít the first such accident either. In recent years, there have been numerous submarine collisions with icebergs, rocks, underwater mountains and of course other undersea vessels, as well as numerous incidents from the Cold War that were long kept secret. Engaged in covert surveillance, NATO and Soviet submarines would engage in deadly games of cat and mouse, coming as close as they dared to their adversaries. Collisions were inevitable and although many weren't too troubling, some were very serious, since even a slight bump between two vessels weighing in at 4000 tons could have disastrous consequences.
While the damage to the British and French submarines is reported as minor, the same cannot be said for the nuclear powered US submarine San Francisco, which in early 2005 plowed into an undersea mountain in the Pacific. The mountain apparently did not appear on the navigational charts of the area. The head on crash occurred some 500 feet below the surface, destroying a sonar dome on the subís nose and peeling back a large portion of the vesselís outer hull. Fortunately the inner hull, protecting the living quarters and operational areas of the submarine, was largely undamaged, although crew members were forced to take emergency measures to reach the surface before limping back to Guam. One man was killed and sixty others injured in the incident.